In the simplest of equations, development is about abundance. Since abundance is not an absolute, we measure abundance by growth and since economic growth has no limit, we worry about the consequences at a later date, be it that we deplete all our natural resources or shrivel up from ever increasing temperatures.
At the same time, it’s hard to deny that an empty gas tank needs filling and when we see what’s lacking, we take out our calculators to see how much we can afford. Can we build more schools, buy more books or equip every student with a tablet? In Laos, students are still studying on dirt floors, sitting eight to a bench and studying by oil lamps. Of course they need more.
But in the same way that the lamp won’t illuminate if it’s not plugged in, there is always a weak link that cuts off our efforts. By process of elimination, I’d say that the brains of young students are not the problem. Before I distribute resources, I want to be sure the teachers are plugged in.
We must give credit to teachers. Teachers work under insufferable conditions. They lack resources, work under low pay and are often stationed in extremely remote areas. The classrooms are often freezing in winter and sweltering in summer and with up to 80 students in a classroom, many are at a loss as to what to do. They need resources, they need training and they need more pay. To ensure there’s quality in their teaching, most are required to make more lesson plans. That seems to be the solution.
Regardless of their insufferable, but noble positions, I have often scratched my head as to how to urge them to improve their skills. Hours of lesson planning often end up with lists of obscure words or lessons on mangled grammar. Sometimes teacher training feels like pouring water on hot stones. Overworked teachers are looking for less, not more. What will they do with more workshops, more manuals and more methods? I would suggest offering less.
Less is more when teachers are asked not to do two things; use a blackboard and read from the text. Letting go is not easy since holding on to these two methods are ubiquitous in the classroom. Without these two props, some will wonder if it’s possible to be a teacher. Using less challenges teachers to think more. The teacher must innovate in order to connect with the students.
There is one more hole to plug. Use less mid-term and final tests and more daily quizzes. Daily quizzes require teachers to define learning targets. Quizzes provide feedback and motivation for students. Daily scores show teachers how well they’ve taught the day before. Quizzes partner the teachers and students in a common goal.
When teachers avert their gaze from the blackboard and peer over their books, they see individual students rather than just hear a blurry mass of chorused responses. They see how some students succeed while some still struggle. I was told that some of the most effective teachers are those teaching the Lao alphabet because the goals are clear for teachers. They want to see their students learn. They are also confident enough with their own knowledge to dare and try any new way to teach.
Fill teachers with confidence and motivation, pay them for their efforts and share the benefits of students’ success. That’s got to be one way to make it all work.